Friday, March 1, 2013

Willa Cather: Concerns on the State of the Literary Novel

The Novel Démeublé

The novel, for a long while, has been over-furnished. The property-man has been so busy on its pages, the importance of material objects and their vivid presentation have been so stressed, that we take it for granted whoever can observe, and can write the English language, can write a novel. Often the latter qualification is considered unnecessary.

In any discussion of the novel, one must make it clear whether one is talking about the novel as a form of amusement, or as a form of art; since they serve very different purposes and in very different ways. One does not wish the egg one eats for breakfast, or the morning paper, to be made of the stuff of immortality. The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be considered exactly like a cheap soap or a cheap perfume, or cheap furniture. Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity, who do not want a thing that "wears," but who want change,—a succession of new things that are quickly threadbare and can be lightly thrown away. Does anyone pretend that if the Woolworth-store windows were piled high with Tanagra figurines at ten cents, they could for a moment compete with Kewpie brides in the popular esteem? Amusement is one thing; enjoyment of art is another.
Every writer who is an artist knows that his "power of observation," and his "power of description," form but a low part of his equipment. He must have both, to be sure but he knows that the most trivial of writers often have a very good observation. Merimee said in his remarkable essay on Gogol: "L'art de choisir parmi les innombrable traits que nous offre la nature est, après tout, bien plus difficile que celui de les observer avec attention et de les rendre avec exactitude."
There is a popular superstition that "realism" asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects, in explaining mechanical processes, the methods of operating manufacturies and trades, and in minutely and unsparingly describing physical sensations. But is not realism, more than it is anything else, an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his material, a vague definition of the sympathy and candor with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme? Is the story of a banker who is unfaithful to his wife and who ruins himself by speculation in trying to gratify the caprices of his mistresses, at all reinforced by a masterly exposition of the banking system, our whole system of credits, the methods of the Stock Exchange? Of course, if the story is thin, these things do reinforce it in a sense,—any amount of red meat thrown into the scale to make the beam dip. But are the banking system and the Stock Exchange worth being written about at all? Have such things any place in imaginative art?
The automatic reply to this question is the name of Balzac. Yes, certainly, Balzac tried out the value of literalness in the novel, tried it out to the uttermost, as Wagner did the value of scenic literalness in the music drama. He tried it, too, with the passion of discovery, with the inflamed zest of an unexampled curiosity. If the heat of that furnace could not give hardness and sharpness to material accessories, no other brain will ever do it. To reproduce on paper the actual city of Paris; the houses, the upholstery, the food, the wines, the game of pleasure, the game of business, the game of finance: a stupendous ambition—but, after all, unworthy of an artist. In exactly so far as he succeeded in pouring out on his pages that mass of brick and mortar and furniture and proceedings in bankruptcy, in exactly so far he defeated his end. The things by which he still lives, the types of greed and avarice and ambition and vanity and lost innocence of heart which he created—are as vital today as they were then. But their material surroundings, upon which he expended such labor and pains . . . . the eye glides over them. We have had too much of the interior decorator and the "romance of business" since his day. The city he built on paper is already crumbling. Stevenson said he wanted to blue-pencil a great deal of Balzac's "presentation"—and he loved him beyond all modern novelists. But where is the man who could cut one sentence from the stories of Mérimée? And who wants any more detail as to how Carmencita and her fellow factory girls made cigars? Another sort of novel? Truly. Isn't it a better sort?
In this discussion another great name automatically occurs. Tolstoi was almost as great a lover of material things as Balzac, almost as much interested in the way dishes were cooked, and people were dressed, and houses were furnished. But there is this determining difference; the clothes, the dishes, the moving, haunting interiors of those old Moscow houses, are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized; they seem to exist, not so much in the author's mind, as in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves. When it is fused like this, literalness ceases to be literalness—it is merely part of the experience.
If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art. There are hopeful signs that some of the younger writers are trying to break away from mere verisimilitude, and, following the development of modern painting, to interpret imaginatively the material and social investiture of their characters; to present their scene by suggestion rather than by enumeration. The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect. In this direction only, it seems to me, can the novel develop into anything more varied and perfect than all of the many novels that have gone before.
One of the very earliest American novels might well serve as a suggestion to later writers. In The Scarlet Letter, how truly in the spirit of art is the mise-en-scène presented. That drudge, the theme-writing high school student, could scarcely be sent there for information regarding the manners and dress and interiors of the Puritans. The material investiture of the story is presented as if unconsciously; by the reserved, fastidious hand of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department store window-dresser. As I remember it, in the twilight melancholy of that book, in its consistent mood, one can scarcely ever see the actual surroundings of the people; one feels them, rather, in the dusk.
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, it seems to me, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
Literalness, when applied to the presenting of mental reactions and of physical sensations seems to be no more effective than when it is applied to material things. A novel crowded with physical sensations is no less a catalogue than one crowded with furniture. A book like The Rainbow by Mr.Lawrence, sharply reminds one how vast a distance lies between emotion and mere sensory reactions. Characters can be almost de-humanized by a laboratory study of the behavior of their bodily organs under sensory stimuli—can be reduced, indeed, to mere animal pulp. Can one imagine anything more terrible than the story of Romeo and Juliet, rewritten in prose by Mr. Lawrence?

How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little—for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude. The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls.


Willa Cather was one of the most influential writers of the 19th Century. Cather contributed poetry and short stories, but she is most well known and applauded for her longer works of Romanticism and historical fiction. She is generally regarded as a realist writer, and boldly states in an article in the Nebraska State Journal:

"There is nothing more fatal than the habit so cultivated by young authors of seeing things in a 'literary' way. There is only one way to see the world truly, and that is to see it in a human way"

Cather was born in Virginia, December 7th 1873, and by the age of nine she moved twice more and found herself adjusting to the foreignness of life on the prairie.  The move was hard for Cather as a young girl in a strange place, and she described the move in an interview:
"I was little and homesick and lonely . . . So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life."
In 1890 Cather attended the University of Nebraska and was consumed with growing ambition to become a writer. She graduated in 1896 and moved to Pittsburgh after accepting a job as manager of a womens magazine. She also wrote theatre reviews for two other magazines, and she became increasingly involved in the Pittsburgh arts scene as she developed an intense love of music and drama. Much of her earlier works including O Pioneers! and My Antonia encompassed aspects of her past transition to the country: Her enchantment with, and attachment to the land, as well as the struggles of an immigrant which she knew all too well. After the war, Cather's novels became more concerned with disillusionment and a sense of discontent with the modern world. Her novel One of Ours was applauded by scores of soldiers and won her the Pulitzar Prize despite it's mixed reviews from critics. In her novel,  A Lost Lady, Cather employs her literary philosophy she explains in "The Novel Démeublé", and article from The New Republic which appeared April 20th, 1922. The New Republic existed since 1914 and has been an arena for liberal writers to comment on current politically and artistically relevant topics. Cather's article is very much a universal one; she is explanatory enough that it could interest the common reader, but she also directly addresses her own contemporaries, as well as future generations of writers.

In "The Novel Démeublé", Cather takes up quarrels with her contemporaries about the state of the American novel and literary realism. Firstly, Cather condemns the literary tradition that praises an author’s ability to account for material objects, or to write pages worth of observatory descriptions. Such a tradition defines the standard of a good writer as one that can adequately observe, and not even necessarily compose a work of art that actually does something useful for readers. She makes the distinction between novels that are for artistic purposes and novels that are merely for the amusement of the reader. People often trade quality for quantity because no one wants to read thought-provoking and profound literature at their leisure. Cather states that to be a good writer one must certainly have the ‘power of description’, but that is merely a less important facet of the skills one must possess to create a meaningful, effective work of art.

Cather defines realism as “an attitude of mind on the part of the writer toward his matter, a vague definition of the sympathy and candor with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme…” She criticizes contemporaries Honore de Balzac and Richard Wagner for their endeavors which yielded less than impressive results. She criticizes Wagner’s works as exemplary of the follies of many others: Wagner can impressively recreate aesthetic elements, however Cather argues that:
  “The things by which he still lives, the types of greed and avarice and ambition and vanity and lost of innocence of heart which he created- are as vital as they were then. But their material surroundings, upon which he expended such labor and pains… the eye glides over them.”

  While Balzac’s and Wagner’s works may condemn them to Cather’s category of “interior decorators” Tolstoy managed to escape such scrutiny. According to Cather, Tolstoy successfully incorporated his materialistic observations and descriptions into the emotions of the people whom he endeavored to capture in his work. She says that such descriptions are” always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized.” And because of this fusion, Tolstoy's recreations are relevant and inevitably part of the experience.

In her article, Cather prescribes a script to younger generations of writers that seem to be trying "to interpret imaginatively the material and social investiture of their characters; to present their scene by suggestion rather than by enumeration" She insists that simplification is essential in order for writers to further perfect and vary the state of the literary novel. Cather states that since the novel is a form of imaginative art it cannot simultaneously be a brilliant work of journalism. Writers who attempt social reform and political commentary within their work, as good writers do, must go about in a way that preserves the dignity of their work. Meaning, that a writer must be able to write well, but writing well journalistically must be inherently differentiated from writing well in the form of a novel.

One of the novel’s Cather chooses to use as exemplary of this idea is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cather testifies that “The material investiture of the story is presented as if unconsciously; by the reserved, fastidious hand of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department store window-dresser.” She uses Hawthorne’s novel as an example of one that does certainly include observations and descriptions, but the novel achieves its literary purposes and the scenery thereby goes practically unnoticed- as it should. The background information; the scenery, landscape, and observations further enhance the mood of the work and allow readers to further explore the world of the novel. Hawthorne succeeds where many others do not because he is able to make this aspect of the novel recede into what it truly is- the background.

Cather asserts that it would be beneficial for writers to be rid of the fluff that is sensory descriptions and bodily reactions, and leave only human emotion to be put under scrutiny in all its grandeur and all its simplicity. She cites the French writer Alexandre Dumas who was a notable force in modern social drama, and is criticized as being “realistic to a fault”. For Dumas, the stage was an arena in which to address controversial social problems and was quoted saying "If I am forbidden to carry on the stage the big questions that interest a living society, I prefer to stop writing." Cather found a comrade in Dumas and his exceedingly ‘realist’ plays which exemplified raw, emotional human interactions and situations freed from the flowery sentimentality and unnecessary details.

 Cather's article demonstrates one authors polarized view of the literary novel. Shaped by her experiences as a child and her own reaction to the war time, Cather's ideal literary world is one absent of all unneccessary fluff composed of physical and sensory descriptions or observations, and one that only leaves room for what is 'real'.

For Further Study:

No comments:

Post a Comment